Suffering in Silence
Devastating floods in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea have left hundreds of thousands in need
On August 29 the rains began. They continued for the next two days, swelling the Tumen river as it coursed along the northeast border of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK). The heavy downpour was a consequence of the tail end of Typhoon Lionrock which had collided with a low pressure weather front as it tracked across China. In just 24 hours up to 300 mm of rain fell over parts of DPRK's North Hamgyong Province.
Streams of water flowed down barren mountains. They merged in ravines to become raging torrents of water - flash floods - which carved through rural communities in the valleys below, demolishing everything in their path. The River Tumen also burst its banks, swallowing entire settlements in the dead of night.
The floods are considered to be the worst in decades yet this has been a silent disaster, largely unnoticed outside DPRK. Hundreds of lives have been lost and the scale of devastation has been immense.
Now, one month on, the full extent of what happened is still emerging. According to the government some 30,000 homes have been damaged, submerged or completely destroyed and 70,000 people rendered homeless.
Chris Staines, Head of Delegation with the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) in DPRK, was part of an assessment team that visited Hoeryong City in the days following the disaster. The team was led by the government and included members of the DPRK Red Cross, UN agencies and other international humanitarian organisations.
"In some villages that we visited on the outskirts of Hoeryong City, there was barely a building left unscathed", recalls Staines. "The floods came through with such ferocity. On buildings that remained standing you could see the waterline above head height. It's remarkable how people survived. Villagers were busy salvaging whatever possessions they could from piles of debris where their homes once stood. Some were living in flimsy shelters made of plastic sheeting strung across a few bits of wood."
For days villages across Musan and Yonson Counties remained cut off as thousands of rescuers were mobilised to the area to repair roads and bridges and remove the earth and rocks deposited by landslides.
In the Sambong Bo area of Musan County, the water level of the River Tumen had risen by over four metres in a matter of hours. When it broke its banks 500 homes were swept away. At least 20 other communities further along the river suffered the same fate. It is still not clear how many died.
Reaching the flood-affected area requires a three-day drive from the capital Pyongyang but it only took 24 hours for the DPRK Red Cross to mobilize over 1,000 of its volunteers from the area to respond to the disaster. They supported local authorities in search and rescue efforts and also provided first aid services to the injured. Trained disaster response teams were deployed and within days emergency relief supplies for 28,000 people had been released from the Red Cross regional disaster preparedness stocks which were stored in warehouses in South Hamgyong and Pyongyang.
Items such as tarpaulins, tents and tools to make emergency shelters were distributed to flood-affected families. People also received other essentials such as warm bedding, kitchen sets, water containers and toiletries.
Longer term recovery will not be easy. Temporary shelters are already being built and the government plans to construct permanent homes for families on new sites which are less hazard prone.
But the task ahead is immense.
"Winter closes in by the end of October and temperatures in these parts can drop as low as -30 Degrees Centigrade", says Staines. We can't have a situation where people are living under tarpaulins in those conditions. Re-building has to happen in weeks not months".
But there are other vulnerabilities. According to the UN, North Hamgyong Province has some of the highest levels of stunting and wasting among under five children. The Public Distribution System, upon which 78 per cent of the population of the province relies, is well below target levels (300 grams compared to the target of 573 grams) and not sufficiently diverse to cover nutritional requirements.
The floods damaged over 27,000 hectares of arable land. The rice and corn were ready to be harvested but now, many families' food has been washed away along with crops, livestock and food gardens.
To make matters worse, more than 45 health clinics have been damaged by floodwaters and there is a critical shortage of basic equipment and essential medicines. Water supply to 600,000 people across the province has been disrupted and for clean water, some communities are now dependent on a few hand pumps and dug wells, which are most likely contaminated by the floods.
On 21 September, the IFRC launched a 15.2 million Swiss Francs emergency appeal (USD 15.5 million, Euros 13.9 million) to reach more than 330,000 people affected by the floods.
The appeal aims to provide a variety of emergency assistance over the next 12 months. Emergency water supply will be installed and teams will be mobilised to avert communicable diseases by improving sanitation and promoting good hygiene. Medical supplies will be provided for health teams on the ground and technical support provided to help with the reconstruction of permanent homes.
The appeal will also be used to purchase winterization kits that will help thousands of families through the hardship of the coming months. These include supplies of coal for heating and cooking, toiletries, winter clothes and quilts, basic food stocks and water purification tablets.
But according to Chris Staines international help needs to scale up.
"This is a disaster on a scale that that no-one seems to have acknowledged. When you add up all the threats that people are facing today in DPRK there is a very real risk of a secondary disaster unfolding in the months ahead if we don't get the help that is needed immediately".